Graham Stack in Gorlivka, Ukraine -
In the evening of July 27, Gorlivka, an industrial town of around 250,000 about an hour's drive from the city of Donetsk, was shuddering as Ukrainian government forces launched an attempt to recapture it from Russian-backed separatist rebels, who had seized control of key administrative building in the city in late April. bne spent the preceding night with rank-and-file rebels at the police headquarters and other locations in an attempt to understand rebel thinking.
The Donetsk regional health department confirmed 13 civilians killed from the goverment assault, mostly apparently by shelling, including two children. A Ukrainian Pravda reporter in the town put casualties as high as 20-30, while Interfax Ukraine reported that Ukraine's air force had bombed the municipal police department, one of the rebels' main hideouts. Andriy Lysenko, spokesperson for Ukraine's security council, confirmed on the afternoon of July 27 that Ukrainian forces were moving into the outskirts of Gorlivka.
The attack on Gorlivka has special significance for Ukraine's “anti-terror operation” and internationally because the commander of the town's rebel forces is Russian national Igor Besler, nicknamed “Devil.” Ukraine's security service, the SBU, has accused Besler of being the commander of the unit that launched the surface-to-air missile that brought down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on July 17, with the loss of all 298 on board. The incident has sparked a major international crisis and far-reaching sanctions against Russia by the US and EU, who believe that Russia supplied Besler with the missile system involved.
Gorliva also has particular significance in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine since it is home to Ukraine's largest chemicals plant, the fertiliser producer Stirol. Fears are running high that any Ukrainian attack could trigger a major catastrophe at the plant, which has already been hit by one shell. “[Ukrainian President Petro] Poroschenko knows that any accident at Stirol would wipe out Donbass civilisation, and enable the territory to be handed over on a platter for shale gas drilling,” one of Besler's lieutenants, bearing the nom-de-guerre of “Boroda” (beard), told bne on the night of July 26, shortly before the launch of the Ukrainian attack.
Kyiv has previously alleged that the rebels have themselves mined Stirol and any explosion there would be their work.
“Boroda” who is head of the Gorlivka rebels' self-styled "NKVD" security department – named after Stalin's notorious secret police – told bne that the rebels would never pull out from Gorlivka as happened earlier in the rebel-held towns of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. “There will be no retreat from Gorlovka, we will fight to the end,” he said.
Despite the looming assault by government forces, there was little sign of panic among the rank-and-file on the night of July 26. The rebels on site – who appeared to be mainly tasked with maintaining order in the town rather than active combat duty – underlined their ideals, expressing dismay that western journalists have named them terrorists and/or mercenaries.
“We're fighting to defend our country against occupation,” says one of the fighters, none of whom were ready to reveal their identity, and who know each other only by their nom-de-guerres. “We are fighting for our own little patch of land and to protect our families.“ He says he is a policeman, as are many of his comrades in the rebel movement. The local police force is believed to be one of the main recruiting pools for rebels, with Donetsk policemen reported to have en masse sworn allegiance to the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic.
A large number of former members of the “Berkut” riot police are also evident among the rebels, identified by their original uniforms during a muster of forces. Berkut were the main opposing force to mass pro-European demonstrations in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine that kicked off in December, which turned violent with petrol bomb throwing and the ousting of former president Viktor Yanuovych in February. “I can show you the burns on my legs I got as a result,” one of the Berkut veterans tells bne.
“We are all from Gorlivka, no 'foreign mercenaries' here,” another fighter underscores, like many of the local Donbass rebels eager to dispel alleged defamation of their movement in international media. He doesn't deny that there are Russians fighting for the separatists, but says this is balanced by Poles and other nationalities allegedly fighting on the Ukrainian side.
Every man is entitled to defend his native territory from foreign invaders, is a popular refrain among the fighters. One cultural reference that recurs is Mel Gibson's film "Brave Heart," the epic story of William Wallace's fight to free Scotland in the 14th century. “The Ukrainian forces outnumber us 10 to 1, but the difference is we are fighting for something we believe in – freedom – whereas they don't know what they are fighting for.” Another recurrent reference among rebels is to the Russian nationalist film “Brat 2” of 2000, and its protagonist's violent one-man anti-American campaign for a very Russian notion of justice.
The rebel units that are recruited locally are largely a rag-tag bunch, ranging from boys to middle-aged men who have mostly brought their own uniforms, lack body armour and have little obvious weapons training. Despite their declared readiness to die for their "country", it seems that their usual deployment is maintaining order locally. It is evident that without strong backing from Russian-provided and possibly manned artillery and anti-aircraft systems, they would have little chance against Ukrainian forces that have the state and international community behind them.
Nevertheless, many locals questioned say they know people who have joined the rebels and some who have lost their lives in fighting against Kyiv. The apparent readiness of the locals to die for their cause has been one of the big surprises since the start of the Donbass uprising in late April, since many alleged initially that the rebels were only in it for money.
“War, war” was the morning chant ringing through the police headquarters as this reporter left at sunrise on July 27. It is unclear what casualties the reported airstrikes has wreaked among the fighters.
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